Notable Blockade Runner Captains

" Here's to the Southern planters who grow the cotton; to the Yankees that maintain the blockade and keep up the price of cotton; and to the Limeys who buy the cotton. So, three cheers for a long continuance of the war, and success to the blockade runners!"
-a blockade runner's toast

Hundreds of civilian and military captains ran the blockade, many of them successfully; following are the stories of some of the most famous.

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson was born in 1821 in Virginia. He had been in the US Navy since 1837, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He served briefly at New Orleans as executive officer of the ironclad Louisiana, and was captured when the forces below the city surrendered to Farragut and Porter's fleets. Exchanged some three months later, he soon assumed command of the blockade runner Robert E. Lee, formerly the Giraffe.

The Lee made twenty-one runs through the blockade with Wilkinson at the helm, exporting some 7,000 bales of cotton from Charleston and Wilmington and returning with supplies of arms and ammunition. He was famous for evading Federal blockaders by such means as decoy signal rockets and smoke screens.

He commanded the secret expedition to attempt the release of Confederate prisoners on Johnsons Island, Lake Erie, but the plot was somehow betrayed in Canada. Wilkinson returned to Bermuda and assumed command of the blockade runner Whisper. On 21 January 1865, he put into Wilmington aboard the Chameleon, but sensed something was wrong when Fort Fisher failed to respond to his lantern signals (Fort Fisher had fallen to a Union amphibious assault six days before). He beat a hasty retreat, outrunning two Federal gunboats, and returned to the Bahamas. Another fruitless attempt at Charleston showed that the days of blockade running were over.

Wilkinson went to England briefly after failing to get into Wilmington and Charleston. At any rate, after the war, he lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He published a book of his experiences, Narrative of a Blockade Runner, in 1877.

For a full-length bio of Wilkinson, click here.

John Newland Maffitt

John Newland Maffit was born during a sea passage from Ireland to the United States in 1819. A lieutenant in first the US and then the CS navy, he commanded the blockade runners Cecile and Nassau, and then was promoted to commander when he ran the cruiser Florida through the blockade at Mobile.

After captaining the Florida for some time, acquiring a notoriety second only to Raphael Semmes of the Alabama, he commanded the blockade runners Florrie (named after his daughter) and Lillian. After a brief tenure as commander of the ironclad Albemarle, he returned to Wilmington to command the blockade runner Owl, in which he made some of the last runs into Wilmington and Galveston.

Thomas M. Crossan

Crossan, unlike Wilkinson and Maffit, was an officer of the North Carolina Navy rather than the Confederate Navy. He purchased a steamer in England for the state at the direction of Governor Zebulon Vance, the Lord Clyde. She was renamed the Advance, and she and several other runners were owned by the state. Governor Vance took special pride in "his" navy, and all cargoes on the state's runners were the property of North Carolina and not the Confederate government.

Crossan ran the Advance through the blockade eighteen times, and for more than a year his arrivals and departures from Wilmington and Bermuda were conducted with time-table regularity. He boldly took her through in broad daylight on one occasion, catching the Federal blockading fleet napping. In late 1864, he was captured when the Advance, burning poor-quality coal and running too slowly, was overhauled by the Union cruiser Santiago de Cuba.

Many blockade runner captains were British naval officers "temporarily retired from service," usually operating under assumed names. Some of the most notable were W.N.W. Hewett, who later became a vice admiral in the Royal Navy; a man known only as "Murray," who became Admiral Murray-Aynsley; and most famous of all, Captain "Roberts" of the Don, who was in fact Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, the third son of the sixth Earl of Buckinghamshire, and who went on to serve in the Turkish fleet-- given the title of Pasha by the Sultan, he is better known to history as Hobart Pasha, one of the heroes of British naval tradition.

A bullet, gentlemen, has a path called a 'line of trajectory.' All you have to do to insure safety is to stand to the left or right of this line.
-- Petty Officer James F. Taylor of the Advance while under fire

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